Devin Townsend: "I was unable to articulate my discontent, so I tended to act up. I even took a sh*t in Steve Vai's guitar case"

Devin Townsend on a life of heavy music, experimentalism and never fitting in

Devin Townsend: "I was unable to articulate my discontent, so I tended to act up. I even took a sh*t in Steve Vai's guitar case"
Ian Winwood

Devin Townsend doesn’t seem like the kind of person who was once a member of a band who destroyed the Kerrang! office. But in the ‘90s, as the guitarist in the then dependably combustible Wildhearts, he watched with concern as the group travelled to London and, making their way into the former offices of K!, smashed the place to pieces with baseball bats. The reason? They were displeased with something we wrote about them.

It says something about this likeable and articulate Canadian that while this carnage was taking place, he himself was indoors in the West Midlands village that at the time he called home. For a long period afterward, upon meeting any representatives from Kerrang!, he would be sure to tell them, “You know, I wasn’t actually involved in any of that stuff.”

A generation on, today Devin Townsend sits amid the soft furnishings of an informal meeting room of an otherwise hectic and chaotic major label record company in South Kensington. Understated to the point of anonymity, the 49-year-old British Columbian is nonetheless the architect and author of a vast array of musical projects, including numerous solo albums and releases under the umbrella of Strapping Young Lad and the Devin Townsend Project, both now defunct. Last year saw the release of the impressive Empath, his 18th solo outing.

Outside it is raining and dismal, conditions to which he feels suited. He jokes that a dislike of ice hockey and an indifference to the music of Rush might endanger his status as a Canadian, but clouds that hang at eyebrow level are very much to his liking.

“I find social interaction difficult,” he says, by way of explanation. “I find small talk difficult, because you just don’t care, right? So I like it when it’s gloomy because there’s so much less chance that you’ll actually run into someone.”

Aside from Kerrang!, that is…

Visiting Vancouver, Homer Simpson once famously said, ‘Grab your winter coat, we’re going to Canada’s warmest city.’ Tell us all about the place.
“Vancouver is great. The geography played into my work in every conceivable way. I actually moved to Los Angeles when I was in my early 20s, and I found that I couldn’t write anything because I was still connected to the misery that is seven months of the year in Vancouver. I think if there’s anything that Vancouver has instilled in me, it’s nature and the trees and all that kind of stuff. It’s always been drizzly there for as long as I can remember, and there’s something about that – if you’re raised with it, it becomes a part of your DNA almost. I think my musical identity was really tied up with that. I like the gloominess.”

What first pushed the young Devin Townsend towards music?
“It was the soundtrack to the movie The Dark Crystal. I loved that movie because it was a very child-friendly version of The Lord Of The Rings, in a sense. It’s a Jim Henson movie, and it plays into notions of duality – you had two characters who at one time were one and then they come back together. Trevor Jones did the soundtrack for that and I remember listening to it incessantly. There was something about the tonality of it that really spoke to me.”

What led you from that to…
“Heavy metal?”

Well, to being a practitioner of heavy music.
“I love new-age music. I love the kind of flute music that led me to loving Enya. I love musicals, Europop and things like the Eurythmics. But then hearing Slade is where everything changed. I heard the song Run Runaway and thought it was great. That song was like a quantum leap into things that were more rock-based. I went out to buy the single and Bon Jovi had released the song Runaway, which is the one that I ended up purchasing. Strangely, I’ve ended up disliking Bon Jovi ever since, because I bought the wrong single!”

As a young man, you landed the gig as the singer with ace guitarist Steve Vai’s band. How did that come about?
“It seems like yesterday, but at that point I was actually 19 years of age. I’d sent a demo tape off to Relativity Records, and I got signed. On the same label was Steve Vai, who had just put out a solo record and was looking for a singer. The A&R guy passed on my demo to Steve and he asked me to participate. I joined his fold and we recorded an album in 1991 or 1992, and we did two years of touring on that. We did things like play with Aerosmith and appear on The Tonight Show, so it really was in at the deep end. It was pretty over-the-top for someone who had never had that kind of experience. I had never played in arenas before, for one thing. I’ve always been very idealistic about music, and when I moved to LA, which I did at this time, I assumed that all musicians felt that way. I pictured an empathetic and nurturing industry. But, the music industry is, overall, a disingenuous place. It’s a hustle. So when I went down there I was deflowered pretty quickly. And I felt at that point that I wanted to take and make things explode.”

Steve Vai seems like a nice person, though.
“Yeah. But he was coming off the Whitesnake thing [for whom he had played] so he really was a rock star at this point. Thirty years on, our relationship has taken a good turn and we’re close. But I think at the time, I didn’t have many ways that I felt I was able to articulate my discontent, so I tended to act up. I took a shit in his guitar case, for one thing…”

“Yeah, which I guess was confusing for him. I think that I felt that unequivocally that would express my discontent with how I was feeling about things.”

Also in the ‘90s you did a stint as the guitarist in The Wildhearts, who are dependably anti-establishment. Was that fun?
“In my own, very passive-aggressive way, I’m anti-establishment. But I don’t want to offend people, which is probably the Canadian in me. When the band were going to the Kerrang! office to smash it up I said, ‘How come?’ And they said, ‘Well, they gave us a bad review.’ And I said, ‘Okay, erm, I’m just gonna stay here, if that’s okay.’ But I remember when they came back there was this giant existential turmoil that engulfed the whole camp over something that clearly they had a choice to do or not. They weren’t victims of circumstance. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, this is odd.’ And I think that’s where the disconnect was. We related in a lot of ways, but I didn’t feel the need to make things that confrontational. There was a lot of the romance at that time with them, regarding what it means to be anti-establishment in a rock band. I was never really in love with the romance in music, I guess because I’d had that experience in LA of, ‘Oh, this is bullshit!’”

Is it correct that you are bipolar?
“Well, they diagnosed me as being bipolar. They have to tick off seven out of 12 symptoms that would clinically put you in a position where you’re eligible for help. The combination of profound insecurity, narcissism on my part, a ton of experiences with Steve and other artists, and a couple of years of deciding that I was going to do hallucinogens – this, after having done no drugs whatsoever – put me into a manic frame of mind, in which I made a series of terrible life decisions. I was in a psychiatric hospital, for example.

“But 10 to 15 years after that I was able to sit down with a psychiatrist and say, ‘I display these symptoms, but I would like you to entertain the notion that it was a result of my surroundings, combined with my use of hallucinogenic substances.’ So, in answer to your question – am I bipolar? No, I don’t think I am. But the symptoms I displayed were very much in line with that, and in my work I’ve had the opportunity to help, in some way, people who are struggling with these things. It is, though, very important to stress that when I came off the medication that I’d been prescribed, I did so under guidance.”

How do you keep those black dogs at bay now?
“I find that meditation helps. Exercise is also helpful. Ultimately, I think these symptoms that people are displaying now – depression, bipolar, schizophrenia – are tied into industrial disease as well. Empathy is part of the human condition, but given how angry civilisation is right now, it’s a quality that’s seen as a weakness. That’s how fucked up it all is. It puts us in a position where we have to suppress our innate nature. That tendency can exhibit itself in various ways of mental illness.”

You’re abstinent now from drugs and alcohol…
“For the most part.”

Was that something you needed to do to straighten yourself out?
“Basically, I think for me my goals in life are to become self-actualised in some way. I think when it comes to food and caffeine, and lots of things, I need to figure out my relationship with them. So, when I’ve made a decision as to whether or not I’m a vegetarian, it comes from a place of actual knowledge. I’m vegetarian because that’s what spiritual people do. And the same comes to my relationship with alcohol. Abstinence is easier than moderation. Moderation is difficult because it forces you to have respect for yourself, which on a very basic level is where a lot of us struggle. Self-love is difficult. For me now, abstinence is about being as close to my true self as I can be. It’s no longer about a fear of losing it or fucking up. It’s simply that my true nature is going to be less obstructed the less shit I put into my system.”

Despite being unpredictable at every turn, you’ve attained sizeable commercial success. Is this pleasing to you?
“It’s something that I tend to be nonchalant about. My unpredictability as an artist is down to nothing more than me being bullheaded. It’s not an intentional thing. The romantic thing to say would be, ‘Well, hey, I’ve stuck to my guns the whole time,’ but I’m just bullheaded. I do things that I want to do.”

Isn’t that a significant part of your appeal?
“Well, that’s nice to hear. I think, though, that the music industry is historically disingenuous, right? I’ve failed publicly on many occasions, and I think that having gone through that means that I’ve developed an invulnerability that people can relate to. As much as I would love to be perfect – the perfect singer, the perfect guitarist – the fact that I’m not means that people are willing to invest in me as a fuck-up who’s trying not to fuck up. That’s how I’ve structured most of my career.”

Is it true that an A&R from Roadrunner once dismissed your music as being ‘unlistenable’?
“(Laughing) Yeah, that’s true – I don’t think he’d be the only one, either! Even hearing that, I’m shockingly unfazed by people thinking whatever they want to think about my music. It doesn’t bother me either way. The music represents periods of my life. You have the music that I made when I was 25, and at 29, and so on. You have the music I made when I was angry, and then when I was confused. And I guess now you have the music that’s being made now that I’m having my midlife crisis!”

Which brings us on to your latest album, Empath. How did that come together?
“I’ve got a hyper-sensitivity to media, to stimulus, to sound. I’ve always had it and it’s also been a cross to bear for my family. I find that stimulus in general exhausts me in a way that is very destructive, if I’m not careful. It’s taken me many years to figure out that it’s within my power to control my environment. So Empath is almost a mission statement. After almost – what? – 30 records or something now, one consistent thing throughout it has been record labels telling me that I can’t put all these different things in one place. I’ve been told that I have to have an identity. And also there’s the heavy music scene itself, which people believe isn’t a place for theatre or meditational music. It’s a really conservative environment. Empath is a gentle way of saying that because I never really fitted in, so why would I invest any more energy trying to suppress who I am, in all the emotionally sensitive ways that manifest themselves as peaks and valleys. Over the past five years I’ve also been conscientious regarding the audience. I have kids now, and as I get older the temptation not to push boundaries gets stronger. I find myself thinking, ‘I’ve got to be careful – I’ve got an audience and I don’t want to fuck that up.’”

Is Empath a reaction against that?
“Yeah. I realised that I was really bored. So I reacted against that. I realised that if I needed to fuck things up, then I should go ahead and do it. I wanted to reach people who want to hear me do that, and who will relate to it. I’m certain that my audience will get smaller as a result of this album, but that’s okay. I’m done spending a great portion of my time pretending to be something that I’m not. Even if it dwindles, what I will have is an audience who listen because they want to. As I get older, the amount of energy I have to impress people diminishes. I don’t want to be the guy who bursts into the AC/DC party with an Enya album under his arm. This record is me saying, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care. I’m gonna do what I want to do and if people like it, that’s cool.’”

Would the young man who stood wide-eyed on the Sunset Strip like the artist he is today?
“Oh yeah. I was so desperate for validation then, but I was the same person that I am today. I don’t give a fuck today, but I say that without any sense of anarchy; I’ve got a good life, I’ve been married for almost 30 years, and I have a son. I don’t need anymore gear, I don’t want a better car – I’m satisfied with what I have. The guy who stood on the Strip would look at me now and say, ‘Thank God he got there in the end.’”

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